Gay Asian group marking a milestone 

GAPIMNY celebrates 10 years of bringing gay Asian men together socially and politically 

By Tom McGeveran
Pauline Park of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy is a former steering committee member.
(by Jake Price)

There had been nothing like it in New York — that according to Don Kao, co-founder of Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York, who says when GAPIMNY was established a decade ago, it was the first of its kind in the Big Apple.

"There had not been anything like this before, a chance for Asians to be alone with other Asians," Kao says, adding the group was a context in which gay Asian men could connect with each other outside of the bar scene, and that was political enough.

Kao took time out recently to reflect on the origin of GAPIMNY, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with a June 3 shindig at the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.

According to Kao, about 30 gay Asian and Pacific Islanders gathered for a retreat in upstate New York in May 1988. When Kao found out that two other retreat participants — John Chin and John Manzon — were moving to the city, he leapt at the prospect of forming a group for gay Asian men.

He says he always had difficulty generating enough interest for such a group in New York, even as activists started up thriving gay Asian groups in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto.

"I just felt like I was alone in New York because the only venues that existed were the Twilight, which was a rice queen bar; Star Sapphire, and then there was Club 58, and that was the only place to go," he says. "Most of the Asian men that were going to those places were looking for white men, and willing to be subservient, and I just got tired of walking out on people; they would say something stupid and I would just leave."

With activists Chin and Manzon in town, Kao finally felt like there were enough boosters to make something happen in Gotham.

But it would take awhile. In the meantime, Kao helped found — and ultimately dismantle — a group called Tribase Collective, an organization for gay men of color. It never got very far, he says, but led in March 1990 to an Asian and Pacific Islander-facilitated racism workshop sponsored by the gay people of color group, Men of All Colors Together.

The workshop generated interest in an exclusively gay Asian and Pacific Islander organization in New York, and later that month, seven gay men gathered for the group’s first meeting.

As word spread, informal, biweekly meetings gave way to large forums and workshops that tackled issues like coming out to family, the state of Asian political organizing in general, and racism in the gay community.

But, members say, the importance of the topics took a second seat to the simple fact of having a venue for discussing issues with a focus on the intersection of gay and Asian identities.

By June, the group was ready to come out as an organization — complete with a new banner — at the Heritage of Pride march, flanked by a sizeable contingent of gay Asian and Pacific Islander men from a variety of cities on the Eastern seaboard.

The increased visibility brought new blood and energy into the group. Specific committees met to propose alternate structures, send out monthly mailings, plan support and social meetings, keep track of organization finances, and even find a catchier and shorter name for the group.

That last proposal was finally jettisoned: GAPIMNY is committed to its unwieldy name.

Now, group meetings are organized into two kinds of sessions, on the model of many groups forming at the time. Informal support groups alternated with general, business-oriented and decision-making meetings. The latter frequently gave way to arguments, but, members say, were also some of the most memorable and well-attended gatherings.

The group addressed a potpourri of topics, including relations between immigrant Asians and Pacific Islanders and their American-born brethren, HIV and AIDS, and sex.

"I think it’s a good mix of social and the political," Conrad Chen, the group’s co-chair, explains. But while most people at the June 3 reception seemed to be there to have a good time, keynote speakers Kao, Chin, and Manzon reminded listeners of GAPIMNY’s activist roots.

GAPIMNY’s first moment in the limelight of the gay community came when the group, along with sister organization Asian Lesbians on the East Coast, wrote a letter to Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund protesting Lambda’s use of the musical Miss Saigon as a fund-raiser.

The Broadway musical is an adaptation of the opera, Madame Butterfly, set in Saigon at the end stages of the Vietnam War. An American soldier returns — with his American wife — to Vietnam to find the woman whose child he fathered in a brothel during the war. The woman kills herself so that the American couple can leave Saigon with the soldier’s child.

Calling the show racist and sexist, GAPIMNY held communitywide forums, and a series of demonstrations that coalesced into the Heat Is On Miss Saigon Coalition.

The months-long demonstration highlighted racial rifts in the gay community, and when GAPIMNY members forced their way into the office of Lambda’s executive director, Tom Stoddard, a shouting match ensued.

Lambda finally used the Miss Saigon tickets for its fund-raiser, but forwarded copies of GAPIMNY’s objections to ticketholders, offering them the option of withdrawing their support.

Pauline Park, once a member of the group’s steering committee and now coordinator of New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, says she would like to see the group do more political work in the future.

"GAPIMNY has been strongest in the area of the social aspect of its mission," she says. "The cultural and political aspects of its work I know they want to further develop and I think from this point forward one thing members will look at very closely is how to form relationships with other organizations to get that done more effectively."

GAPIMNY’s political activism was underscored on June 3 when the three co-founders spoke about their memories of the group’s early stages, a history many younger GAPIMNY members were hearing for the first time.

But there was plenty of time for drinking and dancing after the history lesson.

"What we want to do is increase our membership, by showing people some of the things we’re about tonight," GAPIMNY’s fund-raising coordinator, Glenn Magpantay, said at the anniversary party. "This event is great because it shows our political and social aspects together, and we want people to see that when we do things we do them very well."



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This article appeared in the issue of:
June 23, 2000